Archive for The Great Dictator

The Sunday Intertitle: But soft, we are observed!

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 13, 2021 by dcairns

So… declining Essanay’s urging that he should stay on, Chaplin took on his half-brother Syd as managed and signed with Mutual, again for a record-breaking fee. He also acquired a bigger studio — the biggest — to shoot in, still open air but closed off by canvas side walls and with linen diffusers to drape overhead.

THE FLOORWALKER seems designed to exploit this set-up, as it’s entirely based in one big two-storey set, with connecting elevator and escalator, both of which are exploited for gags. A lot of the film is just “turn Charlie loose in a department store,” but there’s a crime plot too. Surprisingly, despite the presence of Edna, carried over from Essanay and in Chaplin’s personal life too, there’s no romance.

But we do have the welcome addition of newcomers Eric Campbell and Albert Austin.

Campbell is immediately monumental. Practically all the Mutual films can be seen as exercises in using Eric to his full potential. Nobody ever strangled Charlie like Eric did. I know Chaplin is selling the gag furiously, flapping his head about like a mere sawdust-filled bag, but Eric is genuinely flinging him around with great violence.

Austin, promoted from an unnoticeable bit in POLICE (Chaplin evidently DID notice), looks on helplessly. This will be his main function in all the Mutuals. He looks on from behind a moustache of inhuman size, but there’s nothing flamboyant about the rest of him. Indeed, the moustache’s rather distrait quality seems to transfer itself to his entire personage. There IS, perhaps, a hint of pansy stereotype in the overall limpness, which is not however confined to the wrist.

The film opens by establishing a fake Chaplin (herr future director Lloyd Bacon), a guy who merely has the toothbrush ‘tache. The lookalike plot of course anticipates THE GREAT DICTATOR, and in a way the many faux Hulots of PLAYTIME. It’s not immediately clear why this character has to exist and audiences in 1916 may have been momentarily puzzled. But the great plague of Chaplin imitators hadn’t begun yet, so they wouldn’t have thought they were being cheated.

This character is in league with Big Eric in a plan to loot the safe.

A startling cinematic touch — Big Eric is introduced by a big closeup, first of his meaty hands clutching a document, then a slow pan and tilt to the meaty face, enhanced by fake face fuzz — a tweezered space-alien monobrow, a beard to make Svengali or Rasputin virescent with envy. And intense guyliner to make those little marbles seem to start from their sockets. An icon is born.

Edna has a thankless secretary role in this one. Bacon and Campbell, facing arrest for unseen crimes, plan their escape. This is quite a lot of plot and character to set up before Charlie even appears. Three and a half minutes worth, probably a record. By now Chaplin knows the audience will wait for him, and even enters with his back to the camera, confident in his outline.

Charlie, at last entering the story (picking his nose), sows disorder by treating the objects on sale as if they were possessions in his own home — shaving accessories and such. I like his interest, not in a sock, but in the mannequin leg enclosed by it. He’s blankly trying to think up some use for it. He also throws in a cheeky smile, which feels like a new development. His former obnoxiousness is leavened with charm.

Much use is made of the inconveniently placed drinking fountain. Chaplin loves a water feature.

His misuse of the store gradually brings the slow-to-anger Austin to the boil, and squabbling turns to kick-up-the-arse battling. In the midst of this, Charlie does a David Jason, leaning on something that won’t support him.

An ironic intertitle: BARGAIN SEEKERS. In fact, shoplifters. While management is ripping off the store and staff is arguing with Charlie, two women start emptying the shelves — in anticipation of Laurel & Hardy’s TIT FOR TAT. We don’t need to wonder if Chaplin’s former understudy Stan Laurel saw this. But the cheerful wholesale thief of the later L&H comedy is better integrated than CC’s lady filchers, who are a mere decorative flourish.

After all his willfully obstreperous behaviour, what finally lands Charlie in legal trouble is an innocent mistake caused by the perfidy of others. The shoplifters have cleaned out a rack. Seeing the empty rack marked 25c, Charlie seeks to buy this unexpected bargain. Hard to imagine what he wants with a rack, but the disembodied leg was a puzzler too. Maybe he’d have used that to store an odd sock, and maybe this is for his collection of neckties (the tie is one part of Chaplin’s costume that continues to change, I think).

Charlie is now a fugitive in the store, and Chaplin has fun coming up with hiding places and playing “he’s behind you,” a fine old British pantomime tradition.

In amidst this, the escalator is starting to play a role. Charlie is as baffled by it as he formerly was by swing doors. It keeps trying to abduct him skywards. Chaplin’s old boss, Mack Sennett, wondered aloud upon seeing the film why the devil they hadn’t thought of this gag at Keystone. The obvious answer would be that Sennett lacked the imagination, and probably wouldn’t have wanted to shell out to build the thing.

Bacon and Campbell abstract the store’s takings from safe to Gladstone bag, but Bacon smashes a drawer over Campbell’s immense noggin and absconds solo. Bir Eric’s staggering about crosseyed with the drawer over his head is knockabout gold. The tipsy dance is even funnier performed by a big man than by a regular clown — all that weight, in tiptoed stagger.

Fleeing the law, Charlie bumps into Bacon, who is fleeing the supine Eric. Cue mirror routine. The idea of someone mistaking another, similar-looking character for his reflection had been used on stage at least as far back as 1894. A European music hall act called the Schwarz Brothers attempted to retain exclusive use of the gag from 1911. Max Linder performed it in 1913 in LE DUEL DE MAX — a direct copy of the Schwarz version, but not every country upheld the copyright claim of the “brothers” (in reality a father and son called Robi), suggesting that they hadn’t originated as much of the skit as they claimed. Interestingly, the Robis performed in the US in 1915, so that in theory Chaplin could have seen them. If he didn’t, he probably saw Linder’s film version. (Credit to Anthony Balducci for this research.)

The gag isn’t particularly well motivated here — there’s no mirror frame, so the misunderstanding requires both Charlie and Bacon’s character to be very dim. That’s no stretch for Charlie, who is as stupid or cunning as the plot requires at this stage, but it doesn’t make much sense for the crafty embezzler Bacon.

Also of note here is the kiss — seeing in Charlie an unwitting saviour, Bacon grabs him by the (upper) cheeks, and Charlie reciprocates with a quick osculation. The Little Fellow is the ultimate in gender fluidity. Put him in a dress, he becomes a woman. Put him in a house, he becomes a householder. If the set-up looks like a clinch, he goes with the flow.

Bacon’s had an idea. Switching clothes with Charlie, he will make his escape. He plans on Charlie getting pinched for robbing the store. In fact, Bacon is immediately collared for Charlie’s “crimes.” Charlie is able to walk about under the eye of the law, who suspect nothing. Which is pretty implausible, since all he’s done is swap suits.

Even crazier is Albert Austin accepting Charlie as the floorwalker, a man he knows well. He’s also not likely to have forgotten the scruffy interloper who recently kicked him across the store. But these doubling plots are never very logical in Chaplin — ask why nobody remarks on the Jewish tailor’s resemblance to Adenoid Hynkel in THE GREAT DICTATOR?

A second kiss — kissing the aged, tiny elevator boy’s forehead is, apparently, Charlie’s idea of how a boss should behave.

Charlie now plunges into the role of floorwalker. True, he doesn’t understand what the job entails, but he finds entertaining things to do. The shoe department is a great excuse for fondling ladies’ ankles, for instance.

Two familiar faces now enter the film. To my surprise, here’s Leo White and his silk hat. Leo would appear in several more Mutual Chaplin films, culminating in EASY STREET, suggesting that Chaplin didn’t bear a grudge over White’s meddling with A BURLESQUE ON CARMEN. Still, after 1917 he stopped using the silk-hatted foil, and White was soon co-starring in Chaplin copycat Billy West’s shorts. White was a prolific bit player until his death in 1948 — he’s in CASABLANCA, CLOAK AND DAGGER, ARSENIC AND OLD LACE, THE FOUNTAINHEAD…

Also on hand is Henry Bergman, a versatile supporting player who would keep acting for Chaplin, exclusively, up until MODERN TIMES. He would have been under contract so he’d have drawn a paycheck even in the years-long gaps between features. Chaplin, stingy in some respects, was very generous in that way. Edna Purviance also benefited from regular cheques, decades after she’d stopped acting.

Bergson plays your basic palsied dotard here, and is unrecognisable. Out of disguise, he’s the stout restauranteur in MOD TIMES. This cruel mocking of the afflicted is the kind of rather harsh comedy nobody seems to have batted at eye at in the nineteenteens. The actual playing is very funny if you can forget about being sensitive. I’m not suggesting you SHOULD. Charlie himself has a suitably benign attitude to the old fellow — he’s amused, yes, but mostly looks on in innocent wonderment at this extraordinary spectacle.

Charlie also has the familiar trouble with mannequins — they are too much like humans, you can’t trust them. Humans, on the other hands, are too much like objects. Everything is slippery. Confronted by the cigar-chewing detective, Charlie sees the cigar as a useful promontory from which to hang his cane. The fact that the cigar’s owner takes this amiss is a surprise to him.

Meanwhile, Big Eric has woken up and is on the warpath. The rest of the movie is a running battle for the bag full of loot. Chaplin does an expert mime upon discovering the billfolds. Looks. Looks up, processing the information. Looks about nervously. There’s a lot of high-quality strangling. And, most significant of all —

THE SONOFABITCH IS A BALLET DANCER

Chaplin breaks out into his first ever ballet. It seems to be in direct response to having Eric as screen partner. The gravitational pull of the larger player puts him into a terpsichorean orbit. The exaggerated butchness of Big Eric, all guyliner to the contrary, brings out Charlie’s flirtatiousness. He becomes both feminine and implike, a prancing tease whose submissiveness is a mere ploy. These observations are prompted in particular by the fact that this first set of moves are so unmotivated in plot terms. Later frolics are triggered by the situation, like the curtain Charlie hides behind in THE CURE. This one is sheer joie de vivre — an ecstatic response to finally finding his Goliath. Love at first sight.

The sudden appearance of kops firing guns is a little surprising/confusing, and the ending is abrupt. The gag of the elevator crashing down on Eric so that he bursts through its floor in a daze, presumably to face arrest, is nice, but Chaplin hasn’t built a real elevator, I don’t think, and the device seems to operate like a teleporter: the doors close, then open again in a more-or-less identical set up, and we’ve ascended or descended a floor.

Apart from not finding a role for Edna that’s worthwhile, and the continuing use of cutaways to inert scenes, used semi-randomly to allow Chaplin to ellide uninteresting business — a cutaway gets around the delicate business of Chaplin and Bacon exchanging pants, for instance — and the abruption of that finish, this is a prime Chaplin, about as good as anything he’s done up to now, and a fitting inauguration for the excellent Mutual series.

The Sunday Intertitle: Sunday in the park with Charlie

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , on November 22, 2020 by dcairns

…and Mack and Mabel and Eva etc…

Some weird video action in this version, mainly around the four-minute mark. And best mute the music, which is appalling.

Echo Park, AKA the Forest of Arden, or of ardent clowns. Mack Swain and Eva Nelson occupy one bench, Charlie and Mabel another. Charlie throws one leg across Mabel’s lap, Harpo-style, but becomes prissy when she folds the toe and upper of his boot back, like a leather blanket, exposing his bare toes. Then he starts peeling a banana. Hmm, I wonder where this is going?

In fact, no banana-skin gag is attempted.

Charlie is experimenting — same costume, but with a top hat. His early shorts play far more loose with the Tramp image than I realised. I’m sure the accounts I read as a kid suggest it was all one thing after MAKING A LIVING. But the Tramp is versatile. There’s even room to question whether the Jewish barber in THE GREAT DICTATOR is the same character, or a distinct variant. He certainly shares aspects.

The top hat might seem a good contrast with the disintegrating boots. But the derby serves that role well enough. It was worth a try, though, I guess.

If you’re feeling nostalgic, you could enjoy this ratty sepiatone print in French, with an iris-in at the end.

Charlie leaves Mabel and passes Mack, who is minus his usual painted Grouchostache but has a tennis racket, and goes into a bar. Mack swiftly becomes a masher and starts bothering Mabel. For some strange reason Chaplin frames them crammed into the bottom left. I guess because he wanted to show Mack hovering in the centre of shot for a moment. And because one space = one shot, there’s no option to change the angle, at least until after we’ve cut away to Chaplin in the bar.

Chaplin often doesn’t look like himself in these earlies, because his face is doing things it doesn’t do later, but when he laughs “delicately” at having “forgotten” to pay for his liquor, you can HEAR Chaplin’s later laugh from the talkies.

And, GOOD — when he gets out of the bar, Mack & Mabel now occupy a much more comfortable position in shot. Just for a few seconds, then Charlie joins them and we’re back to the other angle, which is fine because now everyone stands up and faces off. Charlie’s indignation at being ignored by the bully who’s annoying his wife leads to some very Chaplinesque prissiness, and he takes to punching Mack furiously in the bottom. Even a thwack with the cane and a series of kicks don’t distract Mack from his goofy wooing. The impacts make clouds of dust fly from Mack’s capacious ass. Were all Keystone clowns powdered with fuller’s earth before going into action?

Soon there’s a fourway argument, and then this separates into pairs again, with Charlie mad at Mabel while Mack and Eva seem happy to have sown strife. Everyone in this film is awful except Mabel.

While Charlie’s back in the bar, Mabel negotiates the purchase of a boxer’s mannequin, one of those things that sways on a heavy, rounded base. Charlie has already had some of the usual trouble with a swing door, so this doesn’t bode well for him. A bit of expressive pantomime tries to convey to us, I think, that Mabel hopes to build up her hubbie’s musculature so he will be more able to defend her honour in future skirmishes. Sure enough, Charlie is being picked on by a local rough in the local bar. Charles Chaplin needs Charles Atlas. In one charming, irrelevant aside, Mabel walks up and down in a bow-legged imitation of the barely-yet-established Chaplin walk.

Charlie’s interactions with the ruffians in the bar see his supercilious mannerisms — defining attributes of the Tramp — come out more and more. Plus, setting himself up against a huge guy like Swain allows Charlie to appear more like a child in adult clothes. While still being a comic drunk because that’s what he was hired to do.

Mabel receives the punchbag-dummy while wearing pyjamas and a leopard skin. A good look for her. 1914 fashions in America were generally frumpy to the extreme, so this is welcome glam. The delivery men, like all the men, are awful.

Later that night, Charlie gets home drunk, with some kind of vegetable matter in his hand. He mistakes the dummy for some kind of silent, headless intruder, and becomes jealous. Unwritten law and all that. But, interspersed with him (predictably) hitting the dummy and getting walloped when it rebounds, is more interesting/funny stuff of him trying to reason with it, showing it the door, etc. All of which is allowed to spread out and occupy time in a way unusual at Keystone.

It’s a trial run for ONE A.M., of course, complete with silk hat.

Mabel is soon involved, trying to make Charlie understand that his opponent is no mere flesh-and-blood rival. Both of them get knocked down. Neighbours gather in the hallway, apparently thrilled by the sounds of murder emanating from the Chaplin residence. Everyone in this film is awful. It’s a nightmare vision of a world without empathy.

Charlie eventually recognises the dummy’s inert nature. A touching reconciliation, not quite up to King Lear, but it’ll do. There are a dizzying number of versions of this film on YouTube, some of which end with the couple flat on their arses, some with an attempt at a kiss, cut short by either nitrate decomposition or the prudish priest from CINEMA PARADISO. There is a smudgy colorized one with nice Antonio Coppola piano score, the sepia French one, and one anamorphically stretched into 16:9, creating a cast of warped Arbuckles, while the clueless perpetrator boasts that it’s in HD. None is ideal. Buy the DVD.

Twomorrowland #4: Warning from Space

Posted in Comics, Fashion, FILM, literature, MUSIC, Mythology, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 17, 2018 by dcairns

THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL is another example of classy, big-budget sci-fi, though less luridly fun than FORBIDDEN PLANET. Its casting does suggest that the slightly flat acting of previous entries in this series was a deliberate choice, as if character quirks would be too much for an audience to take in a movie whose whole premise is quirky. This is the A-picture version of bad B-movie acting, so it’s not actually inept, just kind of flat. Except Patricia Neal, we can agree about that.

Michael Rennie arrives from space to deliver a warning to all of Earth, but all of Earth can’t agree on a meeting place to listen to him. It’s a film about stupidity. Rennie’s Klaatu has a high-handed, “What fools these mortals be” attitude, a loftier version of George Reeves’ Superman, characterised by tiny ironic smiles whenever any of us says anything stupid, which is most of the time.

This is, arguably, mainly a film about stupidity. This makes sense of Snub Pollard appearing as a cab driver. Planet Keystone. There’s potentially a good comedy to be made about an alien visitor thwarted by our dumbness, but somehow I don’t think VISIT TO A SMALL PLANET is going to be it.

I think as a kid I was riveted by the opening of this one, and I still am — it has very good FX work but it’s primarily an achievement of editing — Robert Wise shows his cutting-room origins in all his best sequences, whether the film is WEST SIDE STORY or THE HAUNTING or CURSE OF THE CAT PEOPLE. Though the three speeded-up shots of fleeing crowds are TERRIBLE. I think I was a little bored by some of the talkie bits, and some of the running around backlot streets, but perked up for anything involving the UFO and the robot. I still feel the same way. It’s a lovely flying saucer, especially the interior (motion-sensitive controls!) and Bernard Herrmann’s throbbing, electronically-enhanced score feels literally part of the control room’s feng shui. Maybe because a theremin, like this saucer, can be operated without touch. Also at times the score sounds exactly like CITIZEN KANE’s approach to Xanadu but with added electro. I want to bathe in it.

Fiona recalls being unimpressed by Gort, the titanic robot. A highly critical eight-year-old, Fiona. “I didn’t like the way his joints creased.” I would defend that by saying that if you coat your robot in a kind of flexible metallic skin, which seems to be what Gort’s got, you have to expect it to fold at the joints. But I agree there’s something not quite pleasing about the look of it. He’s a character who works great as a still image, on the poster, and indeed he spends much of his time as a menacing sentry, even immobilized in a plastic cube at one point. His first entrance is unseen — everyone looks up and he’s simply THERE, in the hatchway, like Mrs. Danvers. Wise shoots around awkward movements like picking up a fainted Neal, and pulls off effective forced-perspective illusions to make him seem bigger than he is.

   

Gort is dressed for the swimpool: shorts, goggles and wristbands — to store his locker-room keys — he needs two because he’s big. It would be interesting to see what he wears when he’s not going swimming.

Michael Rennie has a lovely broad-shouldered jumpsuit, cinched at the waist, with a helmet like a sea urchin, even though he can breathe our air fine. This is just so he can go on the run and be unrecognized later. Did he know he would need to do this? Incognito, our saucerboy goes by the name “Carpenter,” emphasising the Jesus effect — he checks into a boarding house like Conrad Veidt’s Christ-figure in THE PASSING OF THE THIRD FLOOR BACK  Later, he will rise from the dead for an unspecified interval before ascending to the heavens. On the other hand, I don’t recall Jesus having a hulking robotic sidekick who disintegrated his foes. And though Christ may have made the sun hide its face, he didn’t make the earth stand still. (Me as a seven-year-old, feeling cheated: “So it’s not REALLY standing still?”)

Crown of thorns?

I think the filmmakers may have missed a trick by not having the big outage occur at night, so you could at least have a dramatic blackout. Wise cuts to different countries around the world but it’s daylight everywhere. So all you get is stalled traffic and a stuck elevator.

Somehow the global power cut doesn’t kill anyone, but Fiona was sure some of the little animated figures in the park were directly UNDER Klaatu’s saucer when it landed — smushed to patê, the poor beggars, never to be seen again, their feet presumably curling up underneath, Witch of the East style.

Apart from Klaatu, Gort and Snub Pollard, the film features Dominique Francon and the High Lama.

Weird how other movies used this as an ur-text, even plagiarising the cast. Patricia Neal romances a space invader in the inferior STRANGER FROM VENUS (aka IMMEDIATE DISASTER, which is hilariously apt). Little Billy Gray, fifteen years later, is staunch in THE NAVY VERSUS THE NIGHT MONSTERS. Hugh Marlowe, Neal’s awful boyfriend, stars in EARTH VS THE FLYING SAUCERS, which is like the lamebrained twin of this movie — instead of visiting Washington monuments, the saucer-people disintegrate them. Despite my love of Harryhausen I’ve never really been able to love that film, it’s too much of a militaristic counter-response to TDTESS. I should also mention that this is really Gort’s second appearance in this season: Lock Martin, minus his robot costume, plays a circus giant in THE INCREDIBLE SHRINKING MAN. He’d also be a mutant in INVADERS FROM MARS.

I feel like Gort is also an important figure in terms of the whole look of Marvel Comics, somehow.

Ultimately, it transpires that Klaatu is here to deliver a blood-curdling threat, essentially treating the Earth the way the US treats other nations with regard to nuclear weapons: We’re allowed to have them because we’re civilised. You’re not, so you’re not. And then he buggers off.

The abruption of the ending is great — scifi/horrors that bring up their end titles as soon as the threat is dealt with are usually lousy — no subtext, no characterisation, hence no coda. But here, we don’t need any discussion as the climax of the film is actually a speech — it’s one of the few films outside of THE GREAT DICTATOR to go that way, and it feels like there’s a slight relationship between Chaplin’s anti-fascist film and Wise et al’s anti-nuke one. What worries me is that, having seen the way human beings think and operate in this film and in real life, we can be reasonably sure they’d immediately start trying to find loopholes in Klaatu’s unambiguous ultimatum, leading to potentially the shortest sequel in Hollywood history: THE DAY THE EARTH BLEW UP.